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Sumo venue holds barrier-free event, aims for inclusive 2020 Tokyo Games

Yokozuna Hakuho, left, and yokozuna Kisenosato perform the ceremony "sandan-gamae" during an event at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo venue on Oct. 4, 2017. (Mainichi)

The "Ozumo Beyond 2020 Tournament" was held for the second year in a row at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan arena this month, aiming to increase the number of people with disabilities and foreigners viewing sumo matches and make the traditional sport more accessible ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

    This year's event on Oct. 4 gathered roughly 4,000 visitors, including approximately 750 people with disabilities and some 370 foreign nationals, making up one-fourth of attendees. While ringside wheelchair seating was offered for the first time by covering the dirt around the ring, attracting 20 fans, the event also revealed the challenges that lie ahead in order to make the Ryogoku Kokugikan, which will host the boxing event during the 2020 Games, barrier-free.

    During the tournament, various traditional sumo events passed down since the Edo period were performed, such as the "yokozuna gonin-gakari," where a single yokozuna throws five other wrestlers in succession, and the ceremony "sandan-gamae," performed by two yokozuna, Hakuho and Kisenosato.

    Yokozuna Haramafuji, center left, performs "yokozuna gonin-gakari," throwing five other sumo wrestlers, during an event at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo venue on Oct. 4, 2017. (Mainichi)

    "Watching from ringside was a completely different experience just like I expected," commented 17-year-old Kishin Ichikawa of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

    At the Ryogoku Kokugikan that was opened in 1985, there are ramps in particular locations that lead from the interior of the "hanamichi" aisles to an elevator on the second basement floor so that injured wrestlers can be moved outside of the venue from the ring via wheelchair. The elevator was also built to accommodate stretchers, and can carry a total of three wheelchairs. During the event, attendees in wheelchairs used this elevator and the ramps in order to reach the side of the ring.

    Those involved with sports facilities are praising the layout and location of the Kokugikan arena. "The facility was designed for sumo wrestlers with large bodies, so there is a lot of leeway," said the administrative head of the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, Yoshio Mifuji.

    The Nippon Budokan facility will hold the judo events during the 2020 Games. However, the aisles of the building built for the 1964 Tokyo Games are narrow except for on the first floor, and people and wheelchairs can barely pass each other in that space. In comparison, the first and second floors of the Kokugikan have no level differences and the aisles are both some 2 to 4 meters wide and circle the entire venue. The sumo facility fulfills the qualifications for being barrier-free set by the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

    Spectators with disabilities, first row, watch a sumo match from the first ringside wheelchair seats, at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo venue, on Oct. 4, 2017. (Mainichi)

    Along with problems inside the venue, the Nippon Budokan also faces problems with getting to the venue that the Ryogoku Kokugikan does not. While there is a steep slope between the Budokan and the closest Tokyo Metro station, Kudanshita, the approach to the Kokugikan from JR Ryogoku Station is flat, with spectators able to access venue seating on the first floor with no unevenness obstructing their path.

    "While there are still some issues (with the Kokugikan), (the venue) has all the elements to be barrier-free, including easy access from the train station," said Toyo University professor Yoshihiko Kawauchi, who specializes in barrier-free architecture.

    However, issues remain, he said. While the sumo venue has a total seating capacity for 10,816 spectators, there are only eight wheelchair seats. The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee policy requires Olympic and Paralympic venues to offer over 0.75 percent wheelchair seating per venue, but this small number barely accounts for 10 percent of this goal at 0.07 percent. The committee policy also includes installing wheelchair seating in a variety of locations for diversity in both view and price, but the Kokugikan's eight seats are only located on the first floor. The availability of wheelchair seating falls far behind the 2015 government guidelines for a standard of over 0.5 percent wheelchair seating at sports facilities.

    Even then, 11-year-old Kuranosuke Fukase of Tokyo's Minato Ward, who visited in his wheelchair for the special tournament event, said, "I got to meet the sumo wrestlers I see on TV at the Kokugikan and it was a lot of fun." His mother Yumiko, 47, revealed, "Once when we got tickets on the second floor, we had trouble because we couldn't use the elevator, but other attendees helped us carry the wheelchair."

    "Wheelchair tickets sell out the fastest, even during preorder, so you can feel the strong necessity to do something," said Japan Sumo Association elder Takasaki, known as Kinkaiyama during his days as a sumo wrestler, who was in charge of the Beyond 2020 event. "I hope that the steps taken during this event will increase opportunities for those with disabilities to view matches." The association is currently in talks with the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee over the division of the two bodies' roles in facility management. Whether the Ryogoku Kokugikan can become a barrier-free facility easily accessible to those with disabilities will depend on the sumo association's improvement plans.

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